What was going on during the 400 years between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament? I don’t know a lot about that period of history, but I do know that the Jewish religious leaders spent a lot of their time adding details to the ten laws God had given them to insure everyone was following them in the strictest sense. “Don’t pick up your mat on the Sabbath” – they decided that was work. “Don’t pick one piece of grain from the field on the Sabbath” – they decided that was harvesting, thus it was work.” By the time they were done adding minute details to insure compliance, there were thousands of laws the Jewish people had to keep track of. There must have been a shared belief that it was possible to be in complete obedience to God’s Laws if they could list all the behaviors they considered to be in violation and punish those who did not comply. Without considering all of the theological and historical facts of what was actually going on, that’s my simplistic take on what they were trying to do. They just kept burdening the people by adding more and more details to the Law.
Mark 3:2-6 ESV – “And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
It is easy for us to see the error of the religious leaders. But adding rules and requirements to God’s gift of salvation is something most of us regularly do, though it is generally less obvious to us. We accept Christ’s payment of our sin debt as a gift initially, but as we live out our faith, we unwittingly add “details” and expect ourselves and others to comply with our ideas of Godly behavior. I often find myself calculating the hours I spend reading my Bible or praying to insure I am devoting enough time to my relationship with God – what “enough time” is I’m not sure. I worry that I haven’t found a meaningful way to serve others: proof that I am not yet worthy of being His child. Grace IS amazing and I have to remind myself every day that I don’t have to add anything to it. Of course, I need to be doing – but living out the love I have for God is not the same as the misguided notion that what I am doing is earning my salvation.
Ephesians 2:8-10 – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Almost every day I read something about things we must include in our Christian walk to assure us of our salvation. A Pentecostal friend doubts my salvation because I don’t speak in tongues. I ran across a website that says being baptized isn’t simply an act of obedience but a requirement for salvation. Churches often adopt a written statement of how its members will conduct themselves, listing behaviors that they will and will not engage in. For grace to be free, and His Word assures us that it is, there can be no signs or behaviors required, except this one: to believe that Jesus is God in human form and that His death is the only way we can be made righteous before God and thereby be reconciled to Him. Period.
Romans 11:6 – “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
It’s easy to tell others all of the things we stopped or started doing as a result of our relationship with Christ. But when non-believers, new Christians or unlearned believers hear these things, they conclude that God loves us based on the things we do or do not do. They cannot separate these things from the concept of grace that we try to explain. Just as the Pharisees kept the Jewish people accountable for every detail of the Law, those we are trying to help find Christ believe they must be “in compliance” with the “laws” we hold about following Christ and know they will fail, so they choose not to take part. How much better if Christians talked as much about free grace as we do about acceptable behavior – or better yet, provide examples of God’s grace through our own lives.
Psalm 14:2-3 – “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”
In order to appreciate this amazing free gift of grace, we need to understand how God views Sin. Once we understand how vile it is to Him, we begin to understand what is so amazing about His grace. Think about forgiving a murderer for killing an innocent child, then take it to the next level – pay his debt to society for him; serve his prison sentence even when it means you will be executed for the crime. We murder our relationship with God when we choose Sin over Him. We are the murderer taking from God what He loves. Our sentence was death but God paid it, not simply by forgiving us but actively paying the debt required.
Once we comprehend God’s grace to us, there is another challenge: extending God’s grace to others, again, not as a requirement of salvation but as a way to show others the extent of God’s love for us. While we may find extending mercy – the opposite side of the grace/mercy coin – a bit easier because it is deciding NOT to do what we feel we have a right to do, grace modeled on God’s example requires action most often in direct opposition to what our human nature wants to do. God’s grace isn’t merely a decision to forgive us when we don’t deserve it. He DID something – He left His glorious home and came to earth where He suffered rejection, humiliation, and a painful death. God’s example of grace is the model for our treatment of those who have wronged us – to do the unexpected, something non-believers would deem “over-the-top” – forgive the murderer, sure, but how about developing a relationship with him because he doesn’t know Christ; forgive the woman at work who stole your idea and, as a result, got that promotion, but also send her a card or a gift congratulating her, knowing God is in control of your life and your rewards are eternal. Once we grasp the extent of God’s grace to us and stand in genuine awe of it, over-the-top behavior can become our new normal. What a difference that would make in our world!
“Amazing grace, … saved a wretch like me.”